Mews is the Director of the Centre for Religious Studies,
Disclosure statement: He has received funding from the Australian
Research Council. He is employed by Monash University and
is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, involved
in planning their 49th annual symposium, (15-16 Nov 2018)
at the State Library of NSW on the theme Clash of Civilisations?
Where are we now?
artichoke, alcohol, and apricot all derive from Arabic words
which came to the West during the age of Crusades.
more fundamental are the Indo-Arabic numerals (0-9), which
replaced Roman numerals during the same period and revolutionised
our capacity to engage in science and trade. This came about
through Latin discovery of the ninth-century Persian scholar,
Al-Khwarizmi (whose name gives us the word algorithm).
debt to Islamic civilisation contradicts the claim put forward
by political scientist Samuel Huntington in his book The Clash
of Civilizations some 25 years ago, that Islam and the West
have always been diametrically opposed. In 2004, historian
Richard Bulliet proposed an alternative perspective. He argued
civilisation is a continuing conversation and exchange, rather
than a uniquely Western phenomenon.
so, Australia and the West still struggle to acknowledge the
contributions of Islamic cultures (whether Arabic speaking,
Persian, Ottoman or others) to civilisation.
an initial curriculum proposed by the Ramsay Centre for Western
Civilisation, only one Islamic text was listed, a collection
of often-humorous stories about the Crusades from a 12th-century
Syrian aristocrat. But Islamic majority cultures have produced
many other texts with a greater claim to shaping civilisation.
PHILOSOPHICAL AND LITERARY INFLUENCES
Many of the scientific ideas and luxury goods from this world
came into the West following the peaceful capture of the Spanish
city of Toledo from its Moorish rulers in 1085.
the course of the next century, scholars, often in collaboration
with Arabic-speaking Jews, became aware of the intellectual
legacy of Islamic culture preserved in the libraries of Toledo.
focus was not on Islam, but the philosophy and science in
which many great Islamic thinkers had become engaged. One
was Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna), a Persian physician
and polymath (a very knowledgable generalist) who combined
practical medical learning with a philosophical synthesis
of key ideas from both Plato and Aristotle.
Another was Ibn Rushd (or Averroes), an Andalusian physician
and polymath, whose criticisms of the way Ibn Sina interpreted
Aristotle would have a major impact on Italian theologist
and philosopher Thomas Aquinas in shaping both his philosophical
and theological ideas in the 13th century. Thomas was also
indebted to a compatriot of Ibn Rushd, the Jewish thinker
Moses Maimonides, whose Guide to the Perplexed was translated
from Arabic into Latin in the 1230s.
there is debate about the extent to which the Italian writer
Dante was exposed to Islamic influences, it is very likely
he knew The Book of Mohammed’s Ladder (translated into
Castilian, French and Latin), which describes the Prophet’s
ascent to heaven. The Divine Comedy, with its account of Dante’s
imagined journey from Inferno to Paradise, was following in
very likely heard lectures from Riccoldo da Monte di Monte
Croce, a learned Dominican who spent many years studying Arabic
in Baghdad before returning to Florence around 1300 and writing
about his travels in the lands of Islam. Dante may have criticised
Muslim teaching, but he was aware of its vast influence.
Islam also gave us the quintessential image of the Enlightenment,
the self-taught philosopher. This character had his origins
in an Arabic novel, Hayy ibn Yaqzan, penned by a 12th-century
Arab intellectual, Ibn Tufayl. It tells the story of how a
feral child abandoned on a desert island comes through reason
alone to a vision of reality.
ibn Yaqzan was published in Oxford, with an Arabic-Latin edition
in 1671, and became a catalyst for the contributions of seminal
European philosophers including John Locke and Robert Boyle.
Translated into English in 1708 as The Improvement of Human
Reason, it also influenced novelists, beginning with Daniel
Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in 1719. The sources of the
Enlightenment are not simply in Greece and Rome.
is always being reinvented. The civilisation some call “Western”
has been, and still is, continually shaped by a wide range
of political, literary and intellectual influences, all worthy
of our attention.
This article is republished from The
Conversation under a Creative Commons license.